A construction worker heading home to Jharkhand, a labourer returning to Uttar Pradesh, a food stall owner packing up.
Within hours of Delhi announcing a weeklong lockdown to tackle the second Covid surge, and despite an appeal from Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, a familiar scene from last year played out at the national capital’s bus terminals and railway stations — hundreds of migrant workers lining up to leave for home.
At the Anand Vihar Inter State Bus Terminal, a large crowd of migrants gathered with bags packed, their destinations mostly Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. The chorus: “We don’t want to be stranded again.”
Many said they were particularly wary after last year’s experience, when they suddenly found themselves out of jobs and were forced to stand in long queues just to get food for their families.
Mohammad Mumtaz Ansari (20), a construction worker in Vasant Kunj, was on his way back to Dhanbad in Jharkhand with a group. “There will be no work during the lockdown, and ever since cases began to increase, housing societies don’t permit us to enter for work,” he said.
Ansari said he was stuck in Delhi last year and could head home only in June. He eventually returned two months ago. “In Delhi last year, we struggled to find food… getting a kg of flour here, some other food there… We had trouble even getting donated food. The entire time we stayed here, we had to ask for money from home, money that we had earned for our families. Unless work resumes properly, we will not come back,” he said.
Mordhwaj (42) was waiting to leave with seven others for Sambhal in Uttar Pradesh. Working as a daily wage labourer at Najafgarh, he said he came to Delhi in November. “We all believed work had resumed and wouldn’t stop again. We are heading back because we fear that like last year, people might get stuck. I have school-going children and I need the money. But it is better to be at home right now, at least we will reach safely,” he said.
Last year, Delhi and Mumbai had witnessed a massive exodus of migrant workers after the national lockdown was enforced in March. In Delhi, with all forms of transport off the road, thousands started walking back, with the numbers peaking in the first week of April.
Subsequently, industrial units and construction sites lay vacant for months, with most workers returning only towards the end of the year. But many of those who returned had to spend months looking for work, while some had taken loans to get back on their feet. Another prolonged lockdown, they said, could again set them back severely.
It’s not just Delhi city, migrant workers in the National Capital Region are packing up too.
At the New Delhi railway station, Anil Prasad (32) and Rahul Kumar (18) said they had booked their tickets just hours ago to head back to Koderma in Jharkhand, although they had been considering heading home ever since cases started surging.
Prasad, who runs a food stall in Noida, said the closure of workplaces in the area after employees started working from home meant practically no earnings for him. “Last year, I went back home on March 22. I returned to Delhi in December. Customers had started returning by then. But ever since cases began to rise, people have again stopped coming,” he said.
He said that though the second lockdown is only for a week, he will return only when Covid cases fall in the capital. “Last year was a total waste,” he said.
Rahul Kumar, who works at his stall, said: “It is not like we can work from home like those big companies. I had to borrow money to book this ticket.” He said his parents and younger siblings depend on him to send money home. “My earnings are very important, how else will we run our families?” he said.